Charging consumers for sewerage upgrades the only sustainable way, says Water UK

England's water companies apologised today for repeatedly dumping raw sewage in rivers and along the coast, ITV News' Amy Lewis reports

Water companies are to invest £10billion to stop sewage spills but the public will ultimately foot the bill.

Charging consumers for sewerage improvement works is “the only sustainable way” of providing funding, Water UK has said.

Initially, investors will pay the multi-billion pound bill, to upgrade storm overflows, aiming to cut the number of spills by up to 140,000 each year by 2030, compared with the level in 2020.

But customers will eventually repay all of that money with gradual rises in their bills, Water UK said.

The biggest modernisation of sewers "since the Victorian era" is planned by the water industry, as companies apologised for not acting quickly enough to tackle spills.

Water UK - a membership body representing the nation's water industry - said plans for the largest ever investment in sewage networks will cut overflows by up to 140,000 each year by 2030, compared to the level in 2020.

Environment Agency figures earlier this year showed there were a total of 301,091 sewage spills in 2022, an average of 824 a day.

Ruth Kelly, Water UK's chair, told ITV News that shareholders of water firms would be asked to finance the plans, but that the UK public will also face a "modest increase" on their water bills for up to a century.

She said that water companies are "really aware of the cost-of-living pressures that there are on families at the moment", adding that there "won't be any change or hike in bills over the next couple of years".

However, she admitted that ultimately the amount by which how much bills increase will be left up to the sector's independent regulator, Ofwat, to decide.

Water UK chair Ruth Kelly told ITV News that shareholders of water companies will be asked to put down a 'multi-billion pound downpayment' to finance the plans

But Labour has said that households must not be forced to foot the bill for upgrades to sewage systems.

Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon told Sky News: "We can't allow in a cost-of-living crisis for families to take the burden of that because water companies still think they can carry on business as usual."

In a separate interview with broadcasters, Mr McMahon called the announcement a "good first step", but said the government needs to show more "leadership".

He said: "They've gone some way to presenting a plan, but we haven't seen the government even meet them halfway.

"So, where is the government on regulation and making sure that the regulators do what they need to do, but also making sure that the targets are actually hardwired into law, so that if they're not met the government actually have the power to do something about it."

Earlier, Water UK apologised for failing to effectively tackle spills in rivers and beaches.

Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon told broadcasters that the announcement from water companies does not demonstrate 'any leadership' from the government

Ms Kelly said: "The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear - we are sorry.

"More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches.

"We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right. This problem cannot be fixed overnight, but we are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see."

The organisation said "£10 billion - more than triple current levels" is ready to be invested, "enabling the biggest modernisation of sewers since the Victorian era, and the most ambitious programme on sewage spills in the world".

Under plans to be unveiled in full this summer, companies will be able to improve their sewer networks and treat overflow spills with less impact on rivers and seas, Water UK said.

An independent data hub to inform the public of overflows and the rolling out of new swimming areas is also planned.

Conservative MP Damien Green admitted while on ITVs politics show Peston that sewage spills were a big problem but also conceded that he "remembers as a child in South Wales swimming in sewage".

Last month, Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said the government would introduce legislation to put plans to reduce storm overflows on a "new legal footing".

The government's Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, published in August 2022, aims to eliminate sewage dumping by 2050 while cutting discharges close to "high priority" areas by 75% by 2035 and 100% by 2045.

High priority areas include Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Areas of Conservation and other environmentally sensitive areas.

A spokesperson for Ofwat said: "We welcome the apology from water companies and this now needs to be turned into action.

"We have been pushing water companies to do more, faster, for their customers and for our waterways and beaches. We look forward to seeing the plans and how companies will step up performance.

"Through our regulatory process, we will ensure they deliver the best possible outcomes over the next five years and beyond.

A representative from Surfers against Sewage protests against sewage discharges at an overflow pipe on Long Rock Beach in Cornwall. Credit: PA

"It is important that companies continue to engage clearly with the public on how this proposed investment will benefit communities and improve quality of life."

Environmental Audit Committee chairman, and Conservative MP, Philip Dunne, said: "People are quite rightly sick and tired of the repeated reports of sewage flowing into our rivers and seas, and we must put a stop to it.

"Today's initiatives, if delivered fully, could go a long way to addressing these understandable concerns and returning the country’s precious waterways to good health."

Alan Lovell, chairman of the Environment Agency, said: "It is right that the industry is honest, accountable and shows the tangible steps it is taking to drive the improvements that we all want to see."

Water minister Rebecca Pow said: "This apology by the water industry is not before time and I welcome it.

"The government has put the strictest targets ever on water companies to reduce sewage pollution and demanded that water companies deliver their largest ever infrastructure investment - £56 billion. I am pleased that they are now taking action to deliver on this, but there is still a great deal more to do."

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